by Joel Dullroy
More and more of us are becoming freelancers, some by choice and others by circumstance. Yes, choosing an independent career can be liberating — that is the story commonly told. But while plenty of enticing factors pull people into freelancing, the erosion of traditional employment has pushed plenty of workers to go it alone. But a growing freelancers movement is trying to turn things around.
As we busy ourselves with independent work in coworking spaces, cafes, and kitchen tables, let us for a moment consider our situation.
A changed employment landscape
Technology has changed the way we work, both the work we do and where we do it. It has opened up the possibility of working remotely, created new fields, and utterly changed the employment landscape. It seems the individual has no choice but to adjust to the digital revolution and, for independent workers and freelancers, to try to enjoy the liberation of independent work and perhaps sigh at the scary uncertainty of fluctuating income and lack of long term economic security.
Yet this technological determinist perspective is flawed. It fails to identify other causes of the growth of the freelance working class, and as a result, blinds us to the solutions to many of our problems. Forces that have caused companies and governments to lower their responsibility to employed workers have played a crucial role in the process.
In recent decades, governments around the world have rewritten employment laws to create more flexibility, making it easier to hire and fire workers and employ workers on a contractual basis without shouldering the burden of providing benefits.
In the grey zone
Outside the traditional employment structure there is a grey zone that freelancers fall into: they work, perhaps more than full-time, but they do not qualify for workers’ protections. This freelancing grey zone emerged in the United States as early as 1947, when independent contractors were cut out of New Deal protections under the Taft-Hartley Act. It expanded in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, as security provisions for temporary workers were reduced. And it swept across Europe from the late 1990s on, under EU employment directives that pushed greater flexibility modeled on US-style easy-hire, easy-fire policies. Even in the recent “great recession,” the IMF has insisted that indebted countries also adopt employment market reforms to increase flexibility. The result everywhere has been a rise in insecure contract, temporary, and part-time work.
Today we live in an era where independent work is becoming increasingly common and where the individual must strive alone without a safety net. Some people have embraced this brave new world. Those who are motivated, highly skilled, well-connected and business savvy race into their independent careers, enjoying their freedom and making more than they could have as a wage earner.
Others aren’t so thrilled. The liberation from traditional employment is accompanied by dry spells, long-term uncertainty and downward wage pressure. As more people join the freelance class, whether by choice or through lack of other options, their individual problems are piling up and becoming a social concern.
At the top of the list of most freelancers’ concerns is health insurance, for which they are charged exorbitant premiums in most countries, without the benefit of employer discounts. Retirement is another major concern. Freelancers must save for themselves, though they often cannot afford to set much aside. Ideally, freelancers should be paid higher rates to compensate for these costs. The reality for many is otherwise. In the UK, a recent study found that half of all self-employed earn under 12,000 GBP annually, which is less than the minimum wage.
As the ranks of freelancers grow, there is a mounting interest among them to rectify some of the problems they face. Rather than rewriting employment laws to incorporate freelancers back into the traditional workforce, social structures can be changed to provide a social safety net for all working individuals, regardless of whether they are employees or independent contractors.
The clue to resolving such problems lies in the history of how we got here. The growth of the freelancing sector was in part exacerbated by ideological seeding and political lobbying on the part of big business. Learning from this strategy, freelancers are beginning to create their own collective political force to improve their situation.
Freelancers get organized
Such a strategy is already at play. In the United States and several European countries, freelancers are forming organizations and campaigns to argue their cause. This freelancers’ rights movement is gaining traction, empowered both by the demographic growth of its member base and by the creativity of those participating within its ranks.
The biggest freelancers’ organization is the Freelancers Union, based in New York. Although not an official union, it has over 225,000 members, has built its own health insurance company, and has lobbied for tax reductions and improved data on independent workers – an important cause, given the statistical invisibility of freelancers. The fiery branding of the Freelancers Union captures the attention of the creative class it seeks to represent, and has inspired organizations on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the capital of the European Union, freelancers have launched a campaign to reshape their working environment. The European Freelancers’ Movement is an online platform that is seeking to represent independent workers in Brussels. The first action of the movement is to collect 10,000 signatures for a five-point manifesto. In the future, the platform can be used to mobilize freelancers to take part in actions, fight against problematic laws, or create new solutions.
The EU freelancers’ manifesto has five points. It asks EU authorities to recognize freelancers as a legitimate employment and business category – a simple ask, but something overlooked by many bureaucrats. Once recognized, freelancers are seeking access to government services and funding from which they are often excluded.
Better statistics are a key demand, as official data about the demographic is limited. Freelancers’ organizations are requesting to be consulted by governments when policy measures are drafted. The fifth point is to seek better contracts and working conditions with businesses that employ them.
The manifesto makes no mention of hard policies, such as regulation, taxation and social security. That’s because many of those concerns are set at a national level with limited EU influence. Nevertheless, the campaign and its manifesto mark the first time independent workers have coordinated to advance a set of shared goals.
Across Europe, the freelancers’ movement has begun, and in combination with the US movement, there is hope of gaining visibility and traction. Although they are growing, these campaigns and organizations and actions are by no means powerful. They require the support of freelancers everywhere to gain meaningful political influence.
The average freelancer, tapping away at their laptop, has reason sit up and pay attention. The erosion of economic security and other mainstays of freelancing are not inevitable. A growing number of freelancers are taking part in the nascent freelancers’ rights movement. With awareness and collective action, their concerns can begin to be addressed and their working conditions, which are far from inevitable, can begin to improve.
Joel Dullroy is author of Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement, which can be downloaded for free from www.freelancersmovement.org. He is also campaign manager of the European Freelancers’ Movement.
 Mark Smith, “Re-regulating transitions? Continuity and change in the UK,” in Regulating Working-Time Transitions in Europe, ed. Jacqueline O’Reilly (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003), 287. ►
 Anne Gray, “Flexicurity: Solution or Illusion?” in Employment Policy in the European Union: Origins, Themes and Prospects, ed. Michael Gold (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 48-52. ►